Duke is the best in the ACC? Really?

dukelogoFourth-ranked Duke won at unranked Syracuse in an ESPN prime-time game Saturday night, and the symbiotic relationship between The Worldwide Leader and its beloved university rose to the occasion postgame.

Duke alums Jay Bilas and Jay Williams clawed through each other to declare Duke the best team in the ACC, and former Virginia Tech coach (and UVA assistant) Seth Greenberg reluctantly joined in.

At the moment, sure, Duke is riding high, 22-3 overall, 9-3 in the ACC, on a five-game winning streak since losing at Notre Dame on Jan. 28, is looking good; while UVA, 23-1, 11-1 ACC, on a four-game winning streak since losing to Duke on Jan. 31, but struggling since losing Justin Anderson in the first half of its win over #8 Louisville last week, is looking good, but not as good as Duke.

Or is that the case? Duke hasn’t lost anybody to injury lately, and yet it’s not exactly blowing everybody out, either. The 80-72 win over Syracuse (KenPom 58, ESPN BPI 49) was close into the final minute, as was a 73-70 Duke win earlier in the week at Florida State (KenPom 112, ESPN BPI 102).

The 30-point home win over Notre Dame (KenPom 19, ESPN BPI 16) was beyond impressive. The six-point home win over Georgia Tech (KenPom 80, ESPN BPI 63), not so much.

Virginia’s sins of late are only winning 51-47 at N.C. State (KenPom 42, ESPN BPI 41) and 61-60 over Wake Forest (KenPom 94, ESPN BPI 100). This after beating Louisville (KenPom 12, ESPN BPI 7) with Anderson scoring two points before leaving with a broken finger late in the first half seven days ago, a win that finished a three-game stretch against Top 12 teams (Duke, UNC and Lousville) that ended with UVA winning two of the three.

To hear Bilas and Williams tell it, though, Duke is clearly better because it has been lights-out of late, which is not the case (the pasting of Notre Dame serving as the outlier in the five-game winning streak, with four of the wins by single digits), and then looking at the Blue Devils’ season-long resume, well, come on, there’s no comparison.

So let’s look at that. Duke is 7-2 against the ESPN BPI Top 50 (including the win at Virginia on Jan. 31), and 13-3 against the Top 100. Virginia is 8-1 against the Top 50 and 14-1 against the Top 100.

Give Duke credit for beating two Top 5 teams on the road (UVA and Wisconsin). Dock Duke for losing at home by 16 to Miami (KenPom 62, ESPN BPI 55) and losing by 12 on the road at N.C. State (which was swept in a home-and-home by Virginia).

Duke also lost at Notre Dame, a tough place to win on the road, and a place where UVA won on the road.

Duke is 6-2 in true road games; Virginia is 9-0.

The season-long resume clearly tips in favor of Virginia, not by much, but at the same time, yes, clearly.

The only argument that the likes of Bilas, Williams and others could offer is that right this second, Duke is a better team, because Duke is at full strength, and Virginia is not.

It would be hard to make the argument that UVA without Justin Anderson could beat a full-strength Duke team, but the question is moot. Anderson will be back before the two teams could match up again, in a hypothetical ACC Tournament matchup.

Which is to say, the UVA team that sneaked past Wake Forest today (Duke, incidentally, had its own trouble with Wake, pulling away in the final minute to win, 73-65, on Jan. 7) isn’t the UVA team that will be competing for ACC and NCAA titles next month.

But this means nothing to Duke-lovin’ ESPN, and I get that. ESPN isn’t making documentaries about Tony Bennett, if you get what I’m saying there. Duke is a brand name, and ESPN is a big part of having built that brand name, and Duke is a big part of how ESPN built its brand name.

Virginia, to ESPN, is what’s wrong with college basketball, to the point that ESPN is polling college coaches as part of its effort to legislate a change in the shot clock.

Not that Bennett, his players or really many UVA fans give a crap what ESPN thinks about the team’s resume or style of play.

Win the Day. That’s all that matters here.

– Column by Chris Graham

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Team of Destiny: Inside Virginia Basketball’s Run to the 2019 National Championship, by Jerry Ratcliffe and Chris Graham, is available for $25.

The book, with additional reporting by Zach Pereles, Scott Ratcliffe and Scott German, will take you from the aftermath of the stunning first-round loss to UMBC in 2018, and how coach Tony Bennett and his team used that loss as the source of strength, through to the ACC regular-season championship, the run to the Final Four, and the thrilling overtime win over Texas Tech to win the 2019 national title, the first in school history.

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